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What you need to know about working the graveyard shift

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Senior Sean Knight takes a customer’s order Monday night at the Starbucks on University Way.

While most people have headed to bed by midnight on a normal weekday, there is a select population who has just begun their work shifts: healthcare workers on graveyard duty.

Hospitals are usually open around the clock. So when someone comes in at 2 a.m. with alcohol poisoning, a doctor needs to be on staff to treat them and people need to be around to run lab tests that monitor patients’ health.

In addition to a little grogginess, people who work the night shift, generally from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. the next morning, endure a number of consequences whether they know it or not.

A study conducted by Scott Davis, University of Washington professor and chairman of Epidemiology, is being done on males who work the night shift.

However, according to Davis, studies observing the effects of exposure to electromagnetic fields, light-at-night and the risk of breast cancer were already being done in the early 1990s. They were the inspiration for the study.

“The exposures were thought to be related to disruption of the normal circadian rhythm and the production of the hormone melatonin at night,” Davis explained. “There was evidence at the time that lower levels of melatonin at night, when it is normally high, could affect the production of reproductive hormones in women, particularly estrogen, and actually increase circulating estrogens. We know from other studies that increased estrogen can increase the risk of breast cancer.”

As a result, Davis decided to delve further into the topic and actually compare the hormone levels of day and night shift workers.

Although the study is still underway, some effects of working the night shift are already clear.

A number of adverse health effects have been reported to be associated with working night shifts.

“These include increased gastrointestinal disorders, increased stress, perhaps an increase in some cardiovascular diseases, perhaps some increase in adverse pregnancy outcomes, and an increase in breast, prostate, colon and endometrial cancer. All of these cancer types are thought to be related to hormone levels,” Davis said.

Some students are also experiencing the short-term effects of working this shift firsthand.

“I sleep for about four hours on Sunday and that puts me behind my normal sleeping schedule of about six to seven hours,” said senior Danialle Calaustro, who works in the Harborview Medical Center lab. “So, I feel extremely tired on Monday … [and] I suppose I’m not as ‘uppy’ or awake.”

In addition to the change in sleeping pattern, Calaustro said there are other social pitfalls of the irregular shift.

“When my friends are hanging out on a Saturday night, I’m heading to work,” she said.

There is no substantial information supporting or refuting varying effects between men and women, and it’s focus of much of the research that is going on now.

“It’s nice because I can sleep in most days and wake up without an alarm clock,” said senior Tommy Han, who also works nights at Harborview.

For students especially, adjusting to the schedule of sleeping during the day and working at night can prove to be difficult.

Davis recommends sleeping on a regular schedule in a dark room — even if it is normally during the day — and to keeping this schedule even on days without work.

He said one of the basic mechanisms for the problem has to do with the disruption of a normal sleep cycle.

Since most students have classes during the day, it’s difficult to do, but it’s a vital step in promoting one’s health.

As a result, it’s recommended that night shift workers protect their daytime sleep at all costs. Over time, the consequences of the night shift could be much worse than being a little cranky the next day.

[Reach reporter Sheena Nguyen at features@thedaily.washington.edu.]

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